Ramallah and Sderot
My Palestinian driver insists we stop by Arafat's tomb to pay our respects. He explains the etiquette: Visitors can either say a prayer or salute. On the 45-minute drive north to Ramallah from Jerusalem, he had referenced the "f--ing Jews" so quickly and often that I figured there was no upside to disclosing my own Jewish heritage. I'm just another American scribe on a day-trip to the West Bank, wondering how to deal with the late PLO leader. At the tomb, I quietly mutter under my breath a Jewish prayer in Hebrew--the "Sh'ma" for you chosen people keeping score at home. Crisis avoided; we are back on the road.
Next stop in downtown Ramallah is the hoity-toity Plaza Mall. Inside is a fabulous supermarket that rivals the Kroger where I shop in my hometown of Nashville. The deep piles of fresh fruit--mostly imported from Israel with Hebrew lettering on the boxes--are impressive, as is the array of fresh fish. The children's indoor play space upstairs has a bumper-car arena.
New, chic apartment buildings with commanding views are being thrown up on the hillsides. My driver takes me up a steep hill to view what he calls a "million-dollar home" under construction at the top. There are signs of poverty around but clearly not everyone in the West Bank fits neatly under the umbrella of "oppressed." It turns out that there is a stock market in Nablus (it's called the Al-Quds Index), and it's outperforming the Dow.
I'm in Ramallah to try to find someone--anybody will do--who's supporting Barack Obama for president. The theory is that even if Israel remains an overwhelming red state, at least the Palestinians may have some sympathy for the junior senator from Illinois. After all, the one thing that Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is that George W. Bush has been the most pro-Israel U.S. president ever. This fact, it is widely assumed here, pushes Palestinian voters towards Obama, whilst driving Jews to line up solidly behind McCain.
This hypothesis is certainly espoused by Hanna Siniora, a soft-spoken and reflective Palestinian who is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a left-tilting think tank in Jerusalem. "The Palestinians are nauseated with Bush," he reports. "Plus if your middle name is Hussein, well that's not a negative in this neighborhood."
Because Obama is black, Siniora adds, many Palestinians feel that he will sympathize with their plight, as fellow oppressed people. Siniora predicts that 80 percent of adults in the West Bank support Obama, and 99 percent in the more radicalized Gaza Strip. In April, Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef told WABC Radio, "We like Mr. Obama, and we hope he will win the election." Even though the endorsement was later rescinded, it's not the type of backing Obama is seeking as he tries to woo the Goldsteins of Boca Raton and the Ginsbergs of Shaker Heights.
To test the theory, I go to see Ramallah's top pollster, Khalil Shikaki. He has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, writes op-eds for the New York Times and Washington Post, and has taught at Brandeis. Shikaki runs the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research out of his office in a well-appointed building atop a Subaru dealership. The building wouldn't be out of place in downtown Tulsa. He has recent polling data on Obama. A late August survey indicated that a scant 9.9 percent of Palestinians thought an Obama presidency would have a "positive effect" on the Palestinian question. Apparently, the "audacity of hope" mantra doesn't fly in Arabic.
Shikaki said he hadn't expected "such a large percentage of negative results" for Obama. He supposes that Palestinians--whether they are Fatah supporters in the West Bank or Hamas supporters in Gaza--think both American candidates are heavily biased in favor of Israel and therefore equally bad.
Shikaki is aware of comments from Obama that appear to paint the Democratic candidate as being more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than is McCain. At a Democratic primary debate, Obama said "nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people," and he told the Atlantic the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a "constant wound" and "constant sore" that "infect[s] all our foreign policy" and "provides an excuse for anti-American Jihadists."
Such positions didn't go down well with American Jewry, and Obama backed off them in his well-publicized AIPAC speech in early June. The late Milton Himmelfarb famously said that Jews "earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." Democratic candidates typically pull at least 65 percent of the Jewish vote in any presidential race. Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey, and Clinton broke the 80 percent barrier. Bush, the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House, grabbed a meager 19 percent (2000) and 24 percent (2004) of Jewish voters. The latest Gallup Poll gives Obama 66 percent of the Jewish vote: not great, but comparable to Mondale's and Dukakis's tallies.
In Israel, though, it's an entirely different matter. "Israel is the only place on the globe in which the public genuinely likes the Bush administration," notes Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier general who studies national security issues at Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies. "McCain is widely seen as an extension of Bush by the Israeli electorate." No one should be surprised that Obama trailed McCain 38 percent to 31 percent in a late July poll of Jewish Israelis. (In May, McCain was up 43 percent to 20 percent over Obama.)
"We respect war heroes in Israel, especially those like McCain who were POWs," notes Mitchell Barak, managing director of the Jerusalem-based Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications. "We see Obama fantasizing about how he wants to sit down and talk to the terrorists, and he loses a lot of Israelis right there. He comes off as unrealistic and insensitive to the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, and as naïve."
Naïve, indeed. It's a theme that popped up frequently when I mentioned Obama's name. Obama lacks experience. Obama doesn't understand how to deal with terrorists in general, and radical Islamic terrorists in particular. Obama thinks a court of law is the right forum for dealing with terrorists. Obama thinks the U.N. is a dandy place to solve difficult problems. Obama would have happily lost the Iraq war. Obama would cede regional hegemony to the Iranians. And so on.
Most Israelis, who live daily with the threat of terrorism, simply don't trust Obama. Take the residents of Sderot, a smallish Israeli city perched half a mile from the Gaza Strip. Since 2001, 7,000-8,000 rockets have rained down on Sderot from Gaza. Fifteen Israelis have died in these attacks and more than 600 have been wounded. Mayoral aide Shalom Halevi points out that Hamas aims the rockets at Sderot's schools and shoots them over just before the school day with the intent of killing or terrorizing children walking to school.
Sofhi and Eli Cohen reside at the quiet end of a street named Derech HaAliyah on the northwest edge of Sderot. On the morning of May 10, a Qassam rocket sailed through their back wall, blowing up a good portion of their two-story house. As luck would have it, nobody was killed, though two of the Cohens' four children were injured.
"Everybody in Sderot prefers McCain to Obama," explains the soft-spoken Sofhi, as she bakes in her kitchen on a Friday afternoon. Despite the fact that her house has been blown to bits and her husband is outside working on the repairs, she has graciously invited me to join her family for the Sabbath meal. "McCain understands terrorists and how to deal with them," she says. She's "quite surprised" and "disappointed" to hear that American Jews prefer Obama. "Obama seems nice, but he's like a child."
And for those who live with terrorists just down the road, a child clearly won't do in the White House. "Obama is young, charismatic, and smart," says Eli Moyal, the straight-talking mayor of Sderot, who has met with both candidates. "But McCain's a more serious guy." The mayor's message to American Jews: If you care about Israel's security, vote for McCain.
Obama supporters turn up in Israel in all the usual places--the media, the universities, etc. Typical among Israeli leftists is the delightful Colette Avital, a Labor member of the Knesset who speaks seven languages, has a Harvard degree, and spends her days sincerely worried about feeding poor Israeli kids who may go to bed hungry. "Bush has screwed up the Middle East and has lost America what little clout it had in the Arab countries," she explains. "Maybe Obama would bring more imaginative thinking to the peace process, towards dealing with Iran and the other issues which matter to us."
Then there's Dani Ben-Simon, a longtime lefty columnist at Haaretz, who is leaving journalism for politics. He believes that George W. Bush did Israel a "great disservice" by his unwavering support of the Middle East's only true democracy. Why? Because Bush was too "friendly" towards Israel and didn't push Israelis towards the "objective thinking" that would have helped them realize that they, too, are a superpower and can afford to reach settlements with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Ben-Simon believes that, despite their military superiority, many Israelis suffer from what he terms the "Warsaw ghetto mentality" and fear that their destruction could be imminent.
Such is the thinking of Obama supporters in Israel. There's no Bush hatred. There are oodles of decency and much intellectualism. Nonetheless, many of their fellow Israelis think they are daft.
The leaders of all three of Israel's major political parties--Labor, Kadima, and Likud--prefer McCain but they don't dare say so publicly, reports chain-smoking political consultant Eyal Arad. Why not? Because, explains Arad, they know they might have to deal with Obama for the next four years. "Israelis fear the unknown and Obama represents the unknown," explains Saul Singer, longtime editorial page editor of the Jerusalem Post, now on book leave. Danny Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006, elaborates, "We all know McCain. When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, he called me and said, 'Danny, what's Israel's policy on torture?' We don't have those relationships with Obama, yet."
Expat Americans in Israel are also largely right-leaning. Kory Bardash, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who is now chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel, predicts that McCain will get more than 75 percent of the vote among Americans living in Israel. He wants it to have an impact, too. Bardash is specifically targeting absentee voters who are registered back home in the swing states of Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
On my way back from Ramallah to Jerusalem, my driver had to take us through one of the controversial checkpoints that Israel set up to keep suicide bombers and snipers from murdering Israeli citizens. Because of the new security fence, which separates the Jews from their Palestinian neighbors, everybody must pass through one of these checkpoints when moving in or out of the West Bank.
My driver and I were a profiler's nightmare. He was fairly young, male, and Palestinian. We left Ramallah in a Palestinian taxi with Palestinian plates. We stopped outside the city so the driver could buy a small table. (Prices are cheaper for most items in the West Bank than in Israel.) The driver stuffed the table in the car's trunk, which was not opened by the Israeli guards though it could easily have contained a bomb. We waited at the checkpoint for less than a minute before being waved through. So much for the supposed inhumane queues which the anti-Israel media enjoy touting.
And it is not as though security is lax. The fence-and-checkpoint combination has done its job. In 2002, there were 234 terrorist attacks launched from the West Bank, claiming 62 lives. Last year, there were no successful attacks. It's a security success story, despite the way the fence and the checkpoints have been portrayed by some in the Western media. And that contrast helps explain the Israeli preference for McCain.
"As a humanitarian, I am delighted that Obama has become America's first black presidential candidate," says Israel Harel, founder of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. "And if my main concern wasn't Israel's existence, I would vote for Obama. But, because Obama is closer emotionally to the Third World--also the Arab world--I would vote for McCain because that would be a vote for a secure Israel and therefore, a vote for securing the existence of the Jewish people."
When your back is to the wall, sweet-sounding platitudes ring just a little empty.
Willy Stern, a Nashville-based writer, has reported from six continents.